BUFFALO – Sitting out hockey games, watching them in a suit from the press box high above the ice was a new and difficult experience for 18-year-old Sabres rookie Mikhail Grigorenko, a healthy scratch the past three games and four of the last six.
The Russian center will finally play again tonight when the Sabres host the New York Islanders, his first appearance under new interim coach Ron Rolston.
“I think every hockey player wants to play hockey,” Grigorenko said after the Sabres’ optional skate this morning inside the First Niagara Center. “Last week I didn’t play hockey. I missed three games. It was a little bit hard. This never happened to me in my life. Today I’m back in the lineup, so everything will be good.”
Clearly, Rolston, who coached his first game Thursday, a day after taking over for Lindy Ruff, needed to evaluate Grigorenko a bit. Rolston had only spent time beside the first-round pick during the Sabres’ summer development camp.
“It was finding the right developmental time in terms of making sure that we’re doing it properly and getting him in the right situations, and when you put him in there, we want him to be playing with players we can play with, make plays and build confidence,” Rolston said.
Rolston said Grigorenko could see some power-play action tonight, although not at the start. Grigorenko’s seen sporadic time on the man advantage through 14 appearances.
“I think everybody want to play the power play,” Grigorenko said. “In juniors, I think I was really good on the power play. I was always on the ice. I was leading on the goals in power play. Now I don’t really play power play. I’m only 18. So I guess my time will come. Hopefully, it’ll come really fast.”
Did sitting help Grigorenko? Before Ruff was fired, he said scratching Grigorenko occasionally would be part of his development.
“Maybe I saw something. Maybe I remember something,” Grigorenko said. “But it will happen on the ice. I will do something I will have learned. Right now, I can’t tell you what exactly I’ve learned.”
Meanwhile, winger Ville Leino (hip) skated this morning, his first on-ice appearance with his teammates since Jan. 18, two days before the season opener. The Finn has been trying a new treatment.
“It definitely felt (the) best I’ve felt so far,” Leino said.
More on the hip later.
Leino, who’s not afraid to speak his mind, felt badly Ruff got fired, laying some blame at the players.
“It’s disappointing,” Leino said. “It’s not the coach always. A lot of times it’s players and everything else, too. … We’re trying to make it better. We’re doing moves to make things better. … We want to win. We’re doing everything we can. It’s pro hockey, and we got to demand more out of coaches, players – out of everybody.
“One of the things here’s I’ve noticed since being here over a year, we got to have higher demands, higher priorities in the games and working better and keeping each other accountable here. It’s not always a happy family. You got to have some controversy, some guys pushing each other. It’s not all smiles and happy and be nice.”
As for his hip, Leino acknowledged prior to this morning he had some doubts his season could be over.
“In my head, it’s not like I can say now I can play in a couple days or so,” he said.
He added: “It’s around these times it’s going to have to turn around or you’re going to have to do something about it. But it felt good today. We’re excited about that.”
Leino’s dealing with some pain and some range of motion issues.
Rolston said a defense change will be made tonight. Andrej Sekera could return after a three-game absence (charley horse).
Update: Defenseman T.J. Brennan and John Scott aren’t on the ice for warm-ups, meaning they’ll be scratched.